How Trump can end his intel wars

President Trump eased worries by picking H.R. McMaster to be national security adviser. But Mr. Trump's combative behavior remains a concern, experts say. 

Susan Walsh/AP
President Trump (r.) speaks as Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (l.) listens at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on Monday, Feb. 20, 2017, where Trump announced that McMaster will be the new national security adviser.

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster in some ways symbolizes the very changes that President Trump needs to make to right his tempestuous relationship with the United States intelligence community.

General McMaster, Mr. Trump’s pick to be national security adviser, does not hail from an intelligence background. But he has a reputation as a man who has no qualms about speaking truth to power and is seen as a facts-based thinker who is not driven by ideology nearly as much as the man he replaces, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

The sense in the intelligence community, experts say, is that the president disparages the purveyors of information he doesn’t like. His dismissal of the 17 agencies that make up the nation’s intelligence community has been repeated and very public.

McMaster’s appointment could send a reassuring signal to the intelligence community. But going forward, much still relies on Trump himself.

He does not need to be an inside-the-Beltway wonk. At one point, President Reagan read only two daily intel briefings in a year. But Trump does need to give the impression that his team is using and valuing the intelligence that agencies provide. And he needs to stop openly disparaging them. Otherwise, the rift could widen, amplifying animosity between the president and the very people tasked with sniffing out threats to the American people.

“If it’s [Defense Secretary Gen. James] Mattis or the national security adviser getting the intelligence and the briefs, that’s OK, it doesn’t have to be the president every day,” says Ellen Laipson, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington and a former vice chairwoman of the National Intelligence Council. “But there does have to be a willingness on the part of the intelligence community’s No. 1 customer to receive information and digest it.”

“It’s worrisome if you trust cable news more than intelligence, or if … the president has an aversion to receiving information that doesn’t fit into his preconceived notions of how the world works.”

Criticism is normal, but not so publicly

Trump is not the first president to put the nation’s intelligence officers on a less-than-high pedestal.

John Kennedy was skeptical of the Central Intelligence Agency’s rosy assessment of prospects for what would become the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Richard Nixon once privately quipped to James Schlesinger that CIA headquarters was 40,000 mostly Ivy Leaguers who did little more than read newspapers all day. When Schlesinger became Nixon's CIA chief, he cut 10 percent of the staff within three months.

But Trump’s criticism has been far more public, beginning during his presidential campaign. The rocky relations came to a head over intelligence laying out Russia’s efforts to influence the elections. The Trump transition team dismissed the findings – saying that the agencies reaching this conclusion “are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Things got worse in the wake of Flynn’s pre-inauguration telephone contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US. The information was gleaned from Federal Bureau of Investigation wiretapping and led to Flynn’s resignation.

“When the intelligence folks briefed the White House on Flynn, you can imagine [the president] was so upset the conclusion was, ‘These folks are after us,’ ” says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense who is now a senior adviser at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Trump’s response was to attack the intelligence community, claiming that it was responsible for information leaks that have beset his first month in office. When Trump received a group of his earliest congressional supporters at the White House earlier this month, the alleged intelligence community leaks were the main topic, attendees said.

Why retaliation could be dangerous

A course of retribution is problematic. For one, he might be scapegoating the wrong people – history suggests that most intelligence leaks don’t come from the intelligence community, experts say.

“I have a friend who likes to say, ‘The ship of state is a curious vessel – it leaks from the top,’ ” says Loch Johnson, a national expert in strategic intelligence at the University of Georgia in Athens. “The information might be coming from someone in the White House, but generally speaking we know that leaks like this tend to come from high officials.”

Moreover, distrusting intelligence sets a dangerous precedent. First, it gets the vast majority of the intelligence community wrong.

“For all these people, including the assets overseas who are taking their lives into their own hands for this work, you can start to reconsider your purpose if the sense is that the president of the United States doesn’t seem to value what you’re doing,” says Professor Johnson. “It punctures the entire intelligence balloon around the world.”

It can also lead to overlooking vital information.  

“The emerging pattern is one of attacking the information provider because the information wasn’t what they [in the White House] wanted to hear, or because they judged it to be biased,” says Ms. Laipson. “The danger is that at some point you miss the opportunity to avert a crisis because things don’t shake out according to your notion, but along the lines of the information you dismissed.”

Some analysts put hope in the fact that key members of Trump’s inner circle have jettisoned the broad and negative generalizations about the intelligence community. And before taking office, Trump spelled out several ideas for streamlining the vast intelligence bureaucracy that some experts found potentially positive.

The concern is that those efforts could be diverted into a vendetta.

Intelligence reviews can be 'useful'

In part as a result of the Flynn scandal, Trump has ordered a broad review of the nation’s intelligence apparatus, naming a longtime acquaintance, billionaire hedge fund founder Stephen Feinberg, to lead the review.

The periodic review of intelligence activities can be “useful,” says Johnson, who served on the Aspin-Brown Commission, which looked at intelligence reform in the post-cold war years.

But he questions the choice of Mr. Feinberg, someone completely on the outside of the intelligence sphere. And others say the Trump administration would be well-served by dropping the distraction of determining who leaked what and focusing instead on reform, such as the possible scaling back of the office of the director of national intelligence, which oversees the 17-agency intelligence community.

But others worry that Trump won’t change how he behaves, leading the relationship to deteriorate further.

“My concern is how the president will take it when these guys come in some day with information, maybe information he doesn’t want to hear, on what they see happening in Mosul or North Korea or Iran,” says Mr. Korb. “Does he accept it and take it into account in his decisionmaking, or is he going to say, ‘I’m going by what I think, I don’t trust you guys anyway, you guys have been after me since I came in.’ ” 

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